It’s a bit baffling that granola is the poster child for health food. Its pedigree certainly looks healthy: It was supposedly invented at a spa in New York in the late 19th century; then adopted (or maybe stolen) by health-obsessed, sexphobic John Harvey Kellogg; and finally embraced by health-obsessed, nonsexphobic hippies in the 1960s.
But its ingredients list? Not so much. Granola starts out with rolled oats, nuts and dried fruit — so far, so good on the wholesomeness front — but takes a sharp turn for the decadent with a thick coating of fat and sugars, which turn crunchy and caramelized as the granola bakes. Granola is basically an oatmeal cookie in cereal form.
And so it should be. Efforts at low-fat, low-sugar granola are bound to fail; if you want a homemade breakfast cereal to make you feel hale and robust, try muesli, granola’s ascetic sibling. Granola isn’t granola unless it’s supremely crunchy, sweet-and-salty, and impossible to stop eating until someone forcibly removes the container from your vicinity.
Like most browned, crunchy and addictive foods, granola requires oil — oil-free granola will never crisp up like its fat-laden counterpart. (Granola without oil is like the Velvet Underground without Lou Reed.) I tend to make granola with olive oil, since it’s what I’m most likely to have around and since I like the way it tastes in sweet recipes. But you should use whatever kind of oil you like: corn or grapeseed for a neutral flavor, peanut or another kind of nut oil for a nutty flavor.
You don’t have quite as much leeway in your choice of sweetener, however. You should use either maple syrup (the most delicious sweetener in the world, period) or honey. Both of these natural liquid sweeteners provide sweetness and so much more; unlike one-dimensional granulated sugar, honey and maple syrup supply the caramel, vanilla and floral notes that make granola interesting to eat.
Once you’ve committed yourself to not skimping on oil and chosen a good sweetener, making granola is more art than science. You’ll need oats, coconut and nuts, but the exact types and quantities are up to you — in fact, you’re better off eyeballing quantities than using a measuring cup. My granola is usually heavy on cashews, but opinions on this matter vary; there’s no reason not to use peanuts, hazelnuts, pistachios or pecans, if they’re your favorite. (And don’t forget about seeds: Sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin can all be delicious in granola.) I like whole nuts, but if their crunch is too much for you, use the sliced or chopped variety — you can even grind up some of them in the food processor for a finer texture.
Just be careful once you’ve combined the dry ingredients, oil and sweetener and put the mixture in the oven. Granola is prone to burning, so keep an eye on it — it’d be a shame to waste all that fat and sugar.
Makes: About 12 cups; Time: 1 hour, largely unattended
1 16- to 18-ounce container rolled oats
1½ cups shredded unsweetened coconut
1½ cups whole or chopped cashews
1½ cups whole or sliced almonds
1 cup walnut pieces or halves
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup maple syrup
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil or peanut oil
½ cup raisins (optional)
½ cup sweetened dried cranberries (optional)
Milk or yogurt for serving (optional)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the oats, coconut, cashews, almonds, walnuts, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl and stir to combine. Drizzle with the maple syrup and oil and stir until they’re evenly incorporated. Transfer the mixture to a 13- by 18-inch rimmed baking sheet and spread into a relatively even layer. Bake, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until the granola has begun to turn crisp and brown, about 45 minutes. (It will continue to crisp up as it cools.) Let cool for at least 15 minutes, then stir in the raisins and cranberries, if you’re using them. Serve with milk or yogurt if you like. Store unused granola in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a month.